Freight Rail Driving Sustainability And Efficiency


Railroads are inherently efficient, be it in land usage, energy consumption or cost of moving goods. In fact, railroads are four times more fuel efficient than trucks, according to the Federal Railroad Administration. Because greenhouse gas emissions are directly related to fuel consumption, this increased efficiency translates to greenhouse gas emissions that are 75 percent lower for rail than for trucks.

While the focus on improved fuel efficiency is a natural business decision to reduce costs, stay competitive and im-prove railroads’ bottom lines, the freight rail industry’s efforts have far-reaching benefits for the environment as well as for shippers and consumers.

Rail service has grown substantially since the United States’ first railroad to offer freight service was completed in 1830. By 1850, the first 13 miles of rail had grown to more than 9,000 miles of railroad in operation. Today, the $60 billion industry consists of 140,000 rail miles, and accounts for 40 percent of the freight moves by ton-miles.

With the growth in market share, railroads are constantly striving to improve fuel efficiency and these efforts have been successful, points out Dan Keen, assistant vice president of policy analysis at the Association of American Railroads (AAR). “U.S. freight railroads moved a ton of freight an average of 473 miles per gallon of fuel in 2013, a 101 percent improvement over the 235 miles per gallon in 1980,” he says.

There are a number of ways railroads have improved fuel efficiency, and redesigning freight cars to enable them to carry more freight is one way. “Freight cars used to be constructed of heavy steel but today’s aluminum cars are lighter,” Keen says. “If you reduce the weight of the car by 20,000 pounds, you can add another 20,000 pounds of freight without exceeding safe weight limits.” By increasing the amount of freight each car carries, railroads can carry more freight with fewer cars, which also reduces the number of locomotives and amount of fuel, he adds.

While fuel efficiency represents a cost savings for railroads, it also translates to fewer greenhouse gas emissions and decreased air pollution. In January 2014, the California Environmental Protection Agency’s Air Resources Board (ARB) initiated the development of a Sustainable Freight Strategy document by the end of 2014 to identify and prioritize actions that move California towards a sustainable freight transport system that is characterized by zero or near zero emissions. The initiative evaluates all segments of the freight transport system in California, including truck, rail, ship, commercial harbor craft, air cargo and cargo handling equipment. The final strategy will include recommendations for near-term actions that come out of stakeholder input and technology assessments for each segment of the transport system.

By Sheryl S. Jackson

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